Poisons in Cats

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
Written by:
Published: August 9, 2022
Poisons in Cats

What Are Poisons in Cats?

Poisons, also called toxins, are substances that have an adverse effect on the body, even a very mild effect. Cats can be exposed by ingesting (eating) a toxic substance, inhaling (breathing) it, or absorbing it through the skin.

When a cat is poisoned, a wide range of symptoms may occur, from minor skin irritation to death. Luckily, some toxins have antidotes which are specific medications given to counteract a specific poison. Toxins that do not have a specific antidote are treated with supportive care through medications and supplements to correct symptoms and keep any more of the toxin from being absorbed into the system.

Poisoning in cats is less common than in dogs, as cats tend to be more particular about what they encounter. Still, even with cats, poisonings occur often. In 2021, ASPCA Pet Poison Control (APCC) reportedly helped 401,550 animals of all sizes, across 50 states, with a wide variety of toxicities ranging from gardening products to essential oil ingestions.

If you suspect your cat has been poisoned, please call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline immediately to discuss next steps.

Symptoms of Poisoning in Cats

  • Drooling

  • Hiding

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Anorexia or decreased appetite

  • Restlessness

  • Weakness

  • Ataxia—walking funny, wobbly gait

  • Increased rate of breathing or heavy panting

  • Increased heart rate

  • Increased thirst

  • Increased urination

  • Icterus—a yellowing of the skin and other normally white areas of the body, including the eyes and the gums

  • Elevated temperature

  • Lethargy

  • Muscle tremors

  • Seizures

  • Coma

  • Death

5 Most Common Types of Poisons in Cats

In order, from most to least common, the five most common types of poisons in cats are:

Food Poisoning in Cats

Chocolate

Chocolate contains small amounts of caffeine and large amounts of a substance called theobromine. Together, these substances are called methylxanthines and are very dangerous to cats. Chocolate toxicity in cats becomes more severe as the amount of cocoa increases. Baking chocolate and dark chocolate are the most hazardous, even in small amounts.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant, and the same stimulant effects that help humans stay awake can cause toxicity in cats. Caffeine is found in:

  • Chocolate

  • Coffee

  • Caffeine tablets

  • Soda

  • Tea

  • Energy drinks

Xylitol

Xylitol is a sugar substitute that is a toxin to dogs. There is evidence that it does not cause serious problems in cats, but there have been some reports of toxicity symptoms occurring when cats ingest larger amounts of this known toxin. Contact your veterinarian if you suspect your cat has ingested something containing Xylitol.

Onions, Garlic, Chives, and Leeks

Cats are the most sensitive of all animal species to toxicity from ingestion of onions and garlic. Cats have been reported to shows signs of toxicity not only with fresh, raw produce but also foods containing dehydrated flakes, powders, and dry onion soup mixes. Signs of toxicity in cats have been reported with an ingestion of less than a teaspoon of cooked onions.

This toxin causes your cat to develop possibly life-threatening hemolytic anemia, a condition in which your cat’s body destroys its own red blood cells, resulting in anemia (low red blood cell count). Your cat might require a blood transfusion. Signs of anemia develop within 24 hours and include:

  • Depression

  • Anorexia

  • Yellowing of the skin/eyes

  • Collapse

If left untreated, this toxicity is fatal to cats.

Grapes/Raisins

While the toxic principle in grapes is not completely understood, any ingestion of grapes by a cat is considered potentially toxic and should be treated as an emergency. Grape/raisin toxicity can cause life-threatening kidney damage and/or kidney failure. Signs of this toxicity include:

  • Vomiting

  • Anorexia

  • Lethargy

  • Dehydration

  • Diarrhea

If left untreated, this toxin can potentially cause lifelong kidney damage, and even death. The prognosis for this toxicity is good if treatment is initiated before clinical signs develop.

Spoiled Food and Mold

Food mold, also known as Penicillium spp., is a fungus that grows on aging food. It is usually visible to the naked eye and will make your cat sick if ingested. Other molds can be found in certain mushrooms (primarily Amanita species).

Cats are exposed to this toxin when they eat moldy food directly out of the household trash or find it outside. They also can ingest it through a compost pile or from moldy nuts or fruits that have fallen from trees. The toxin can also be inhaled if your cat comes into close contact with it, even without eating the fungus. These inhaled fungal toxins can cause damage to the lungs as well as difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, and elevated body temperature.

Salt

Salt toxicity is not common, but it does occur in cats if they ingest products high in sodium chloride, such as table scraps, homemade play dough, rock salt, paintballs, table salt, sea water, and enema solutions containing sodium phosphate.

Salt toxicity is less likely to affect a cat that is properly hydrated and has free access to fresh water. If a cat is moderately dehydrated and does not have access to fresh water (an outdoor cat, for example), this cat cannot tolerate higher concentrations of salt.

Alcohol Poisoning in Cats

Alcohol poisoning from beer, wine, and liquor is rare in cats, since they typically find these beverages distasteful. This type of toxicity is directly related to how much your cat has consumed. The signs of toxicity are similar to those in humans and include:

  • Stomach upset—vomiting and nausea

  • Wobbly gait, walking funny

  • Increased thirst and urination

  • Lethargy

  • Disorientation

In more severe cases, you may see:

  • Muscle tremors

  • Paralysis

  • Slow or shallow breathing

  • Seizures

  • Loss of consciousness

Cats who have ingested a small amount of alcohol may sleep it off, as most people do. If the signs progress, however, it’s best to have your cat evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Household Item Poisoning

Household cleaners

This category includes:

  • Bleach

  • Soaps

  • Detergents

  • Fabric softener

  • Enzymatic cleaners

  • Deodorizers

  • Oven cleaners

Even though cats tend to be picky eaters and don’t eat toxins as readily as dogs, they are curious creatures. In addition to eating them, cats may inhale them in the environment or by grooming contaminated fur.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are not all-natural products. They are very harmful and potentially toxic to your cat. Even diluted oils can be dangerous, as neither option has been confirmed safe by the FDA or the EPA.

Essential oils, when placed on the skin, have a robust smell that can entice your cat to lick or sniff the area.

Mouse and Rat Poisons

Anticoagulant rodenticides are poisons used to kill mice, rats, and other rodents. These poisons cause the rodent to bleed profusely by keeping the blood from clotting. This toxin is made in a variety of preparations: hard blocks, soft bait (similar to a chew treat), pellets, powders, grains/meals, and even liquid formulations. Toxicity occurs if your cat ingests the rat poison.

A second smaller chance for toxicity is if your cat eats a poisoned rat or mouse, as felines are avid hunters. Both your cat and its prey will have then been poisoned. Ingesting the poison directly or ingestion of a poisoned rodent is often life-threatening for cats, as it causes extensive internal bleeding. This potentially fatal bleeding usually occurs inside the body and can go unrecognized until it’s too late.

Poisoned cats often bleed into their lungs and abdomen, but bleeding can be visible from the nose and/or mouth. Signs of internal bleeding include:

  • Weakness

  • Depression

  • Increased respiratory rate

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Coughing

  • Pale gums

  • Anorexia

  • Large belly

  • Dark/bloody stool

  • Skin bruising

Non-pet-safe de-icing salts

During the winter, in colder areas, it is common to use a de-icing salt or ice melt on sidewalks and driveways. Ice melts are often made with sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and/or magnesium chloride, which can cause a severe increase in the body’s sodium levels. Toxicity often occurs when cats lick their feet after walking though the ice melt, and less often from licking the ground or climbing into the ice-melt container.

If cats lick their feet and only ingest a small amount, signs that occur (drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea) often go away without medical intervention. Larger amounts ingested can cause significant stomach upset, leading to serious dehydration as well as ulcers in the mouth and stomach. This causes your cat to be in pain and potentially not want to eat or drink.

There are many alternatives to ice melt that are pet-friendly, and sand is another non-harmful alternative.

Metal Poisoning

Heavy metals cause toxicity in cats including:

  • Arsenic is a natural element found in the environment. Ashes from treated wood can be hazardous to pets, and cats are the most sensitive animals to this poisoning. After ingestion, arsenic can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, wobbly gait, diarrhea, collapse, and death.

  • Copper toxicity is considered uncommon, but still possible. Copper-containing items your cat could swallow include wires, jewelry, and even old pennies.

  • Iron toxicity can occur if your cat ingests an iron supplement medication commonly taken by people for low-iron medical conditions. Iron poisoning in cats can start with stomach upset and intestinal bleeding. If left untreated, or if the cat continues to ingest more, it will cause liver toxicity and fatal heart conditions.

  • Lead poisoning in cats can occur from lead paint ingestion/inhalation or other sources, such as fishing weights, toys, and jewelry, and less commonly from automotive oils and lead glaze for pottery. This very serious toxicity is considered more serious in kittens than older cats, as it creates lead deposits in the bones, over time. As with most metal toxicity, gastrointestinal signs occur first and can progress to neurological conditions, such as weakness/lethargy and seizures.

  • Zinc poisoning can occur after cats are exposed to coins and other galvanized metals, such as bolts, nuts, jewelry, toys, and cage material. Most intoxication occurs from a pet ingesting pennies (more common in dogs than cats, but certainly possible). Depending on the amount of zinc ingested, and how long the exposure has been occurring, this toxicity can lead to fatal destruction of the body’s red blood cells—a condition called hemolysis. You may notice your cat has pale or yellow gums, and blood in the urine, which are signs of this illness.

Certain heavy metals can be seen by your veterinarian on an X-ray, which can aid in diagnosis and treatment. Chelation therapy is a therapy often performed with metal toxicity. This therapy involves special agents, given by injection or by mouth, to attract the metal and bind to it in your cat’s bloodstream. This therapy facilitates the removal of metal from your cat’s body and decreases or eliminates signs of toxicity.

Plant and Flower Poisoning in Cats

The following plants and flowers can be dangerous for your cat:

  • Aloe

  • Amaryllis (Amaryllis spp.)

  • Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale)

    • All parts of this plant are toxic. It can cause severe stomach upset, including bloody diarrhea, breathing problems, seizures, liver and kidney damage, and death. Symptoms can take a few days to show up, or can occur right away.

  • Azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.)

    • These plants have different effects on cats depending on the amount ingested. The entire plant is considered toxic, but the leaves are the most dangerous. Severe clinical signs include irregular heartbeats and seizures.

  • Castor bean (Ricinus communis)

  • Chrysanthemum, daisy, mum (Crysanthemum spp.)

    • See flea and tick medication poisoning.

  • Cyclamen spp.

    • This plant contains saponins, and when chewed or ingested, any part of the plant is toxic to cats. The toxin can cause heart problems, seizures, and death.

  • Daffodils (Narcissus spp.)

    • Daffodils can cause stomach or intestinal blockage—if large amounts of the bulb are ingested. They can also cause low blood pressure in cats, which can be life-threatening.

  • Diffenbachia spp.

    • This plant contains insoluble oxalate crystals. Chewing or biting into this plant releases the crystals, causing irritation to the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.

  • English Ivy (Hedera helix)

  • Hydrangeas

    • If ingested, hydrangeas can lead to a very dangerous toxicity, as the plants contains cyanide. However, cyanide poisoning doesn’t occur commonly in cats, since they do not ingest large amounts; usually only stomach upset occurs.

  • Kalanchoe spp.

  • Lilies (Lilium spp.)

    • Lilies are the most common plant toxicity in cats. Deaths have been reported after ingestion of only one or two pieces of the plant. This highly toxic plant causes serious kidney disease and death.

  • Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

  • Marijuana (Cannabis sativa)

    • Cats can become intoxicated by ingestion of the dried plant or edibles but also by secondhand smoke. Signs of toxicity are neurological and include wobbly, uncoordinated movement; hyperactivity; and disorientation. This toxin can also cause a cat to be extremely vocal. Dilated pupils and slow breathing rate, lethargy, and changes to body temperature are also possible.

  • Oleander (Nerium oleander)

    • Oleander is a plant that causes serious heart and neurological problems as it contains a  toxin called cardiac glycosides. All parts of the plant are toxic to cats. Even drinking a small amount of the water in a vase can cause toxicosis.

    • Other plants that contain this toxin are Dogbane, Giant Milkweed, Foxglove, Kalanchoe, Lily of the Valley, and Star of Bethlehem. Toxin effects are similar to what a human experiences, and your veterinarian will prescribe Digoxin as a medication.

  • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.)

  • Pothos, Devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum)

  • Sago palm (Cycas revoluta)

    • This miniature palm tree is a very common yard plant, especially in the southern United States. While the entire plant is toxic to cats, the seeds or nuts are the most dangerous. This toxin can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, liver failure, difficulty breathing, and death.

  • Spanish thyme (Coleus ampoinicus)

  • Tulip (Tulipa spp.) and hyacinth (Hyacintus orientalis)

    • Tulips can cause severe stomach upset in cats. If the bulb is ingested in large chunks, it can cause a stomach or intestinal blockage.

  • Wild mushrooms

  • Yew (Taxus spp.)

Medication Poisoning in Cats

Flea and tick medication poisoning

Pyrethrin and/or pyrethroid, are ingredients in some flea/tick medications (topical sprays, dips, shampoos, preventions, etc.) and can also be found in insecticides, agricultural products, and home products to help control pests. Pyrethrin is a derivative of the chrysanthemum or mum plant, and pyrethroids are a synthetic version of pyrethrin.

Pyrethroids are not safe to use on cats. Pyrethroid is permethrin are the most common topical flea and tick preparations. Toxicity commonly occurs after a canine flea/tick medication is applied to a cat. Never give your cat flea and tick medication manufactured for a dog.

Human medication poisoning

The following human medications may be toxic if accidentally ingested by your cat.

  • Antidepressants—Effexor, Prozac, Sarafem, Rapiflux, Selfemra, and Fluoxetine

    • It has been reported that cats are attracted to a smell or flavor in the human antidepressant Effexor, causing it to be one of the top toxins reported in cats. Each medication can cause severe toxicity and even death.

  • Anti-inflammatory medications—Advil, Aleve, Motrin (NSAIDs)

    • These are highly toxic to cats. Ingestion of less than half a pill can be fatal. These medications cause stomach ulcers and rapid, severe kidney failure.

  • Acetaminophen—Tylenol (non-NSAID)

    • Toxicity in cats occurs most often when a cat is given this medication to help control pain at home. Unfortunately, this medication is toxic to cats and should never be given to them under any circumstances. It makes a cat’s red blood cells unable to carry oxygen, causing liver damage and other fatal abnormalities.

  • Vitamin D Overdose

    • There are two forms of vitamin D that can result in poisoning in cats:

      • Vitamin D2—produced by plants, fungus, and yeast

      • Vitamin D3—produced by animals

Poisoning occurs when cats ingest rat or mouse poison containing either form of vitamin D–cholecalciferol rodenticides. These forms of vitamin D are also found in topical psoriasis medications and improperly formulated pet-food diets, either commercially produced or homemade.

  • Benzodiazepine and sleeps aids—Axanax, Klonopin, Ambien, Lunesta

  • Thyroid hormone—Armour desiccated thyroid, Synthroid

Pet medication poisoning

Even medications approved for pets can be toxic if the cat ingests too high a dose. The most common pet medications that can be toxic to cats, if improperly administered, are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), heartworm preventatives, antibiotics, and nutritional supplements.

What to Do If You Think Your Cat Has Been Poisoned

If you suspect your cat has ingested a toxin, call your veterinarian or take your cat to the animal hospital immediately. When you call, it is best to have as much information as possible to guide the veterinarian in a recommendation. It’s very important to let the vet know when the ingestion or exposure took place, the name of the product, the amount ingested or applied to the cat, and the clinical signs you’ve witnessed.

If you contact poison control prior to a veterinarian, you will receive a case number that you can provide to your primary veterinarian, who can consult about the case and get specific treatment recommendations.

It is never recommended to make your cat vomit at home. Doing so can cause additional severe symptoms and make the current problem much worse. Induced vomiting should always be done with the guidance of a veterinarian.

If your cat was exposed to a toxin on the skin, bathing it to remove the toxin is highly recommended, if you can do it safely. This is effective in most cases.

As with all toxins, the sooner you get your cat treated, the better. The longer you wait and the more symptoms that develop, the worse the prognosis will be. In all poisoning cases, cats need immediate medical attention by their veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Alena Shapran


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